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The Darker Side of the City of Light

April 10, 2002|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Considering that America's first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," was set in Paris, it's surprising that more of this country's crime writers don't spend time exploring the dark side of the City of Light. Cara Black, a travel-prone author currently based in San Francisco, is doing her part to correct this omission. Her "Murder in the Sentier" (Soho, $24, 336 pages) is the third entry in an intriguing new series featuring Aimee Leduc, a young private eye who, with her resourcefulness and jaded outlook, might be described as the Parisienne Kinsey Millhone. (Like Sue Grafton's novels, which are set in the 1980s, Black's take place in the recent past, in 1994.)

Though Millhone is no slouch when it comes to family baggage, Leduc's parents have left her in a whole new world of psychological unrest, a situation that forms the basis for this new novel. In the midst of wheeling and dealing to keep her late father's detective agency financially afloat, Leduc is approached by a woman claiming to have been the cellmate of her long-missing American-born mother, claiming also that they both had earned their imprisonment by being members of a Red terrorist brigade in the 1960s.

When the ex-convict is murdered in the Sentier, the "rag trade" district of Paris, Leduc is compelled to investigate the crime and the claims. She can't stop, even when her probing uncovers information that suggests her father, an ex-Paris cop, may have been crooked. Black keeps the tale taut and tricky, with aging survivors of the gang being bumped off and Leduc dodging both murderous assaults and the police while relentlessly pursuing the truth about her parents.

We're taken on a remarkably vivid tour along the city's streets, inside fascinating shops and homes (including the heroine's apartment overlooking the Seine), and backstage and on the runway at a wild fashion show complete with a roller-blader taking electronic orders. There's even some fancy computer work, one of the Leduc Agency's specialties, courtesy of Rene, Leduc's dwarf partner, a hacker extraordinaire. With its sights, sounds and colorful cast, it's a particularly eventful and involving Paris visit.

Twists and Turns

With a 'Snakehead'

Jeffrey Deaver's "The Stone Monkey" (Simon & Schuster, $25, 432 pages) marks the return of quadriplegic NYPD forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs, his partner in both detection and romance. It begins with a vicious gent known only as The Ghost sinking a ship filled with undocumented Chinese immigrants near Long Island.

The Ghost is a people smuggler, or "snakehead," to use the book's apt appellation. Not satisfied with drowning a number of passengers and crew, he then proceeds to hunt down and murder those managing to make it to shore. Two families escape all the way to New York, with The Ghost in deadly pursuit.

The FBI, Immigration and the NYPD all are involved in trying to stop the homicidal snakehead, but the task of locating him and his potential victims falls to Rhyme and Sachs. Following Deaver's proven successful format, fans can expect to be led down several false paths. The seemingly villainous will turn out just; the innocent will be found guilty; information accepted as fact will be disproved; and cleverly planted clues will eventually provide all the answers.

Two elements make "Monkey" a more enjoyable read than the last several Rhymes. The romance between the physically impaired hero and the physically adroit heroine has moved beyond being just a part of the suspense package to a relationship that seems natural and unforced. And the abundance of Chinese culture that the book presents is fascinating. If it's the result of research, Deaver has done a shrewd job of integrating it into his tale. If he made it up, he's a genius.

Nuclear Weapons and International Intrigue

With "Kelly's People" (Forge/Tom Doherty, $24.95, 352 pages), veteran suspense novelist Walter Wager returns to the world-at-risk, spy-versus-spy games that he described so entertainingly in books like "Telefon" and "Time of Reckoning." In what appears to be the start of a new series, the book takes us inside a secret facility somewhere in this country where five superlative espionage agents have arrived after transplant operations that saved their lives.

Along with the special pills and "dark fluid" necessary for their continued survival, they are spoon-fed bits and pieces of information about their current status. The real reason for their assembly is to test their combined powers of ESP. Since the test is a rousing success, their hosts' motives soon become clear: They're the new weapons in America's battle against international terrorism. And they've been loaded for action a little too late for an African town that has been decimated by a small nuclear device known as a Demon.

A smarmy Russian general has developed his own method for reducing his country's nuclear stockpile. He's sold their Demon arsenal to a certain Middle Eastern client. That client leveled the African community just to test the product. Now he has sent Demons on their way to three of his least favorite cities in the world, and it's up to the psychic five, led by the dynamic, wisecracking super-agent Denny Monroe, to uncover the targets, find and disarm the bombs and then decommission the terrorist.

Needless to say, "Kelly's People" will not be mistaken for a John le Carre novel.

But those who've enjoyed the breathless, imaginative, no-holds-barred international thrillers of the late Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum should be pleased with Wager's sly addition to the genre.

*

Dick Lochte, the author of the prize-winning novel "Sleeping Dog" and its sequel, "Laughing Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other Wednesday.

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